FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On paper, this Patriots team doesn't measure up to others Bill Belichick has taken to AFC title games.
On the field, though, unheralded players replacing missing stars filled major roles to get the Patriots a win away from their second Super Bowl in three years.
"It doesn't really matter how a player gets to the New England Patriots, whether he's drafted, traded, signed as a free agent, signed as an unrestricted free agent, signed as a street free agent," Belichick said. "It's much more important what they do when they get here."
Belichick and his staff find players unwanted elsewhere and constantly tinker with the practice squad.
"It's really just being diligent, turn over a lot of rocks looking for the right player, the right fit," he said.
Sealver Siliga wasn't drafted in 2011. He was cut by three teams — the other three still in the playoffs. Now he's replacing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork who tore his right Achilles tendon in his fourth game.
"I don't even think of that. Those shoes are too big," Siliga said. "Just trying to do my job."
Matthew Mulligan was released by six teams, including the Patriots, after being ignored in the 2009 draft. Now he's playing tight end after Rob Gronkowski tore ligaments in his right knee.
"I don't think you replace anybody," Mulligan said. "Gronk is Gronk, and I'm me, and that's just what it is."
Other key starters missing Sunday's game because of season-ending injuries are linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Then there are the 15 rookies on the 53-man roster.
Now compare that to the team that went to the 2012 Super Bowl with Gronkowski, Wilfork, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. Or the one that got there four years earlier with an 18-0 record and Welker, Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. The Patriots lost both to the Giants. The Patriots' two Super Bowl teams before that? They had Bruschi, Harrison, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour and won both.
McGinest finds similarities in this year's team and the underdogs who beat the Rams.
"They don't ever give up," McGinest said. "Maybe (they're) like us in our first year in 2001, where a lot of people didn't consider us as household names, a lot of younger players or players that were kind of off the radar that kind of bought more into the team aspect of things, of being unselfish instead of the self-promotion type thing.''